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Charles W. Allen, Christian Theological Seminary

The central argument
of this essay

is that Westerners (and perhaps others) need not only
to recover but to radicalize what

Aristotle called

or "practical wisdom."

Such a
strategy, I suggest, would allow us to salvage much more of our philosophical and theological
heritage than is presumed possible in many current discussions, though perhaps not without some
retive tampering. It would also ease, though not elim
inate, some of the perennial tensions
which have come to light between theory and
. I shall begin by characteriz
ing certain
contrasting tendencies in our intel
lectual culture which this strateg
y would help us resist. These
tendencies can be described in terms of an opposi
tion between objectivism and tribalism.

Objectivism and Tribalism

Objectivists can also be called absolu
tists, founda
tionalists, or ration
alists, while tribalists
can b
e called relativists, historicists, or sub
jectivists (and in theological circles are often called
ians"). The terms matter less than the conflicting tenden
cies they describe. The conflict is
mostly over doctrines of ration
ality. Objectivists,

since Plato, have held that in reasoning we
should aim for one set of stand
ards which are so rigidly fixed as to be completely unaffected by
people's contin
gent stand
points. Modern day objectivists, such as Martin Hollis and P. F. Straw
son, may not e
ndorse Plato's cosmology, but they nevertheless insist that the bare possibility of
understanding diverse cultures requires "a massive central core of human thinking which has no

Tribalists, since Protagoras, have held that in reasoning we shou
ld content ourselves
with innumerable sets of standards which are so localized as to be completely subservient to
people's contingent standpoints. Modern day tribalists, such as Barry Barnes and David Bloor,
have no objection to judging between true and f
alse, rational and irrational beliefs. But they
insist that the standards to which one appeals in making these judgments are confined to one's
own "tribe." "In the last analysis," they claim, the tribalist "acknowledges that his justifications
will stop
at some principle or alleged matter of fact that only has local credibility."

what appear to be the sharpest possible differences, objectivists and tribalists share one
assumption in common, namely, that the standards which guide our reasoning ar
e either
completely unaffected by our contingent standpoints or else wholly subservient to them. As


A version of this essay appeared as “The Primac
y of
: A Proposal for A

Frustrating Tendencies in
Our conceptions of Rationality,” in
Journal of Religion

69 (1989):359

P. F. Strawson,

(London: Methuen, 1959), p. 10.
Martin Hollis takes up Strawson's phrase and defends
it in "The Social Destruc
tion of Reality" in
Rationality and Relativism
, ed. Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes
(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982), pp. 67

Barry Barnes and David Bloor, "Relativism,
Rationalism and the Sociology of Knowledge," in
Rationality and
, p. 27. This statement might not qualify as tribalist were it not for the word "only." Substituting less
than absolute terms, such as "mostly" or "primarily," might get them o
ff the hook.


objectivist Gottlob Frege put it, "If . . . nothing maintained itself fixed for all time . . . everything
would be plunged into confu

Frege uses t
his assumption to argue that some things do
indeed maintain themselves fixed for all time, and that he has uncovered enough of them to
deliver us from confusion. But the tribalist uses the same assumption to argue that outside our
tribal customs confusion

is all we should expect to find, since nothing we know of has ever
maintained itself fixed for all time.

Now unlike many current writers on this subject, I am more interested in warning against
these tendencies than in accusing people of succumbing to th
em. It is fairly easy to find think
such as those just cited, whose work (or at least certain aspects of it) can be defensibly construed
as objectivist or tribalist. But that in itself will not warrant our assuming that this is the only
defensible c
onstrual, and in fact it usually is not the only one. The same work can sometimes
even lend itself to construals which provide valuable resources for resisting the very tendencies it
has encouraged. Richard Bernstein, for example, offers alternate readin
gs of critical theorist
Jürgen Habermas and new wave pragmatist Richard Rorty. He argues, convincingly in my judg
ment, that, while Habermas does indeed show tendencies toward objectivism, and Rorty toward
tribalism, both thinkers are nevertheless among t
he most im
portant pioneers in recent attempts to
move "beyond" objectivism and tribalism.

I am convinced that similar multiple readings can be
defended in the case of thinkers often accused of being the most sinister exemplars of
objectivism (e.g., Desc
artes, Kant, Husserl, or theologian Schubert Ogden) or tribalism (e.g.,
Nietzsche, Kuhn, Foucault, or theologian George Lindbeck). The question ought not to be one of
who to read and not read but of how to read people in ways that help us resist tendencie
s which
all of us find seductive at one time or another.

Critics often fail to point out that both tendencies are likely to produce the same
disastrous conse
quences, albeit in different ways. Their more sinister forms can lead to imperi
alism, while th
eir more benign forms can lead to irrelevance. Imperialism and irrelevance may of
course be genuine risks haunting any attempt to be reasonable, but objectivism and tribalism are
the most likely of such attempts to wind up with one or the other by virtue
of their extremism.
By insisting on only two basic options in reasoning they leave themselves basically with only two
possible outcomes.

If the objectivists' program is to be of any help they cannot merely

for ahistorical
standards. They must also

claim to have found at least some and preferably most of them. The
alternative would be to admit that, despite all well
intended efforts, all of our standards remain
wholly subservient to contingent standpoints, which for an objectivist would amount to a
admission of utter despair. Such high stakes are bound to generate considerable anxiety, and for
that very reason are also likely to make objectivists extremely reluctant at certain points to make
room for their own fallibility and finitude. They will
have a great deal of difficulty in seriously
entertaining the possibil
ity that they could be mistaken about standards they now take to be
genuinely ahistor
ical, or the possibility that they have not already found most of the truly
important ones. This m
eans that the aims and consequent anxi
eties of objectivism can quite

Gottlob Frege,
The Foundations of Arithmetic
, trans. J. L. Austin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950), p. vii.

Richard Bernstein,
Beyond Objectivism and Relativism

(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983),
pp. 182
06. Bernstein is among the most helpful and accurate commen
tators on, and contributors to, strategies for
resisting ob
jectivism and tribalism. I have borrowed the term "objectivism" directly from his work. I want to press
the possibility of alternate
readings further than even he seems willing to do, however, and I prefer to speak of

objectivism and tribalism, instead of
moving beyond

the two tendencies.


easily legitimate imperialism and ethnocentrism, where little if any provision is made for
dissenters even to get a hearing.

To be fair I must acknowledge that a good many objectivists

nevertheless do recognize the dangers involved even in their own projects and strive to cultivate
a healthy degree of fallibilism.

But given the anxieties which inevitably accompany their aims
this will always be an uphill battle. Histor
ically con
ous objectivists typ
ically attempt to make
room for fallibilism by first restricting the applicability of their stand
ards to "ideal" (i.e., made
up), simplified and sharply circum
scribed languages, and then saying very little about the conse
quences of
these ideal lan
guages for those which people actually use. In doing this they may be
more likely to avoid imperialism, but they also in effect give up claiming much relevance, if any,
to the sorts of reasoning people find them
selves having to pursue.

I doubt that objec
ists find
this alternative much more attractive than imperi
alism. In any case, people who turn to them for
guidance are bound to be disap

Tribalists are no better at escaping these alternatives. By their own admission th
ey are
just as involved as objectivists in evaluating beliefs and practices. Granted, when others'
standards of evalua
tion seem to differ from their own they do not feel the need to critique them,
which may make them appear more open
minded. But this ap
pearance is deceptive, for while
they may not want to critique others' standards they also feel no need to listen if others want to
critique theirs. Ex
changes that take place between different tribes are rather viewed as exchanges
of power, not reasons.

So long as other tribes' standards do not threaten to erode theirs, tribalists
can afford to let people go their separate ways, but once they feel suf
ficiently threatened they will
have to do whatever is neces
sary to stop the others' influence. Short
of killing they can force the
offending tribes to move away or convert, which puts them on the path of imperi
alism, or else
they can find some way to isolate them
selves, which is another variety of irrelevance. If
reasoning is assumed to be completely s
ubservient to local custom there are no other choices.

Hardly any and probably none of us wants to be an imperi
alist, and while irrelevance
appears somewhat more benign, we would all most likely prefer some non
imperialistic way of
avoiding that conseque
nce as well, if such a way could be conceived. Fortunately, as I have
hinted, such a way can be conceived, though following it may be difficult and sometimes
at least as difficult and hazardous as people's lives tend to be already. Conceiving
such a way requires an account of human understanding which can defensibly claim to be neither
objectivist nor tribalist and which can offer resources for resisting their temptations.

Phronesis: A Portrayal

Consider then the claim that, ultimately, all f
orms of thoughtful activity will, at their best,
be governed by
. This claim will become clearer after I offer a portrayal of this ancient
virtue suited to our present conversations. The following working defini
tion will serve as a point

Cf. ibid., p. 19.

As Bernstein points out, for objectivists and tribalists al
ike "the dominant temper of our age is fallibilis
tic." Ibid.,
p. 12.

Stephen E. Toulmin offers an argument along these lines in
Human Understanding
, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1972), p. 63. Hilary Putnam makes a similar point i
n response to W. V. Quine in
Realism and

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 284: "Ordinary language, or at least language con
terms that are not 'perfectly precise', is the only language we are ever going to have:
philosophy c
annot forever
confine itself to theories of the logical structure of make
believe languages

Cf. Toulmin, pp. 76


of de
nesis is the histor
ically implicated, communally nurtured ability to make good
sense of relatively singular contexts in ways appropriate to their relative singularity

tion covers a number of crucial points which need to be mad
e more explicit. I shall list and
then discuss them in the following order:

is employed in making good sense;

is communally nur

is historically implicated;

makes good sense of
relatively singular contexts; th
e ways in which

makes sense are appropriate to its
subject matter.

The first point to note is that

is employed in making good sense. Each word of
the phrase, "making good sense," is crucial to keep in mind. The last word reminds us


is employed in understanding and making judgments.

It yields genuine knowledge.
But the first and second words also remind us that phronetic sense
making is neither theoret
detached nor value
neutral. It is always practically eng
aged, recognizing that our own
participation (

sense) and value judgments (making

sense) play an essential role in
the kind of knowledge

yields. Thus, contrary to certain portrayals of rationality,
phronetic sense
making does not pres
ume that practical engagement always interferes with
genuine knowledge. It undoubtedly can interfere if not properly taken into account, but taking
our practical engagement properly into account no longer means automatically discounting it. If
making makes any sense at all, we have to acknowledge that at least some things
can be known only from a prac
tically engaged standpoint and that rationality must there
involve more risks than some of its defenders have been willing to admit.

o say that

is also communally nurtured is to focus on an important aspect of
its practical engagement. The value judgments essential to phronetic sense
making inescapably
arise from the trust and loyalty we already have for communities which hav
e formed us.

is perhaps most noteworthy about these communal bonds of trust and loyalty is that, while
carrying some of their own risks, they also import resources for self
criticism into the heart of our

practical engagements. For loyalty brings a

sense of being accounta
ble to others for the
judgments we make, and trust brings an expectation that those others will consider themselves
similarly accountable to us.

This is not the sort of formalized accountability, however, which is

I do not wish to get sidetracked here over how close this definition is to Aristotle's treatment of

Book VI of
e Nicomachean Ethics
). There are several diverging perspec
tives on what he really meant. But, as
with other recent thinkers on this subject, my principle concern is with how his account addresses and raises vital
issues in our own time. This certainly
requires considerable respect for Aristotle, but not slavish reproduction. In
fact I believe it requires respectfully standing Aristotle on his head. Richard Bernstein comes to much the same
conclusion (see Bernstein, pp. 47
48), and I find few if any si
gnificant differences between a rendering of

he offers and my own definition.
, he explains, "is a type of reasoning in which there is a mediation
between general principles and a concrete particular situation that requires choice and d
ecision. In forming such
judgment there are no determinate technical rules by which a particular can simply be subsumed under that which is
general or universal. What is required is an interpretation and specification of universals that are appropriate t
o this
ular situation" (p. 54).

I am using "sense" more elastically than those philos
ophers who associate that term only with meaning and not

Cf. Aristotle, EN I.2, I.4, X.9; Alasdair MacIntyre,
After Virtue

(Notre Dame: Universi
ty of Notre Dame Press,
1981), especially pp. 137
153; Richard Bernstein, pp. 150
165; Ronald Beiner,
Political Judgment

University of Chicago Press, 1983), pp. 75
82, 138
144; William M. Sullivan,
Reconstructing Public Philosophy

(Berkeley: Univ
ersity of California Press, 1982), pp. 170
172; Stanley Hauerwas,
A Community of Character

Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), especially pp. 111

Jürgen Habermas has argued that something like this sense of mutual accountability
is assumed as a central aim in


typified by bur
eaucratic organizations, for these are designed to work precisely where communal
bonds are too difficult (or else too suspect) to establish or maintain. Communal accountability
does not primarily depend on the bureau
crat's uniform application of principl
es, but on more
elastic standards which, while seeking to preserve continu
ity, leave considerable room for
individual discretion (

To make the further point that

is histor
ically implicated is to emphasize that its
practical enga
gement never
theless does have its hazards. As I am using the expression, there are
mainly two ways in which

can be said to be historically implicated: on the one hand
(especially where its sense
making cannot afford postponement), it is bounded

by unacknowl
edged conditions and unintended consequences; on the other hand it can also be distorted by
various forms of self

This of course makes the need for communal ac
that much more urgent, but insofar as communities are li
kewise historically implicated further
allowances will have to be made for their own susceptibility to error and distortion as well.
Thus, although

cannot be cultivated apart from bonds of trust and loyalty, its continued
cultivation requires th
at those same bonds be conditioned by a variety of "distancing" moves,
both in our intellectual pro
cedures and institutional arrange
ments. This point is of considerable
significance in helping us understand our present standpoint in Western history. Fo
r much of
what we have come to call the development of modernity involves recognizing the need for such
distancing moves and struggling to secure a prominent place for them in all forms of life.

find them traveling under a variety of labels
tal (i.e., "scientific") method, ideology
critique, hermeneutics of suspicion, social contracts, bureaucratic rationalization, to name only a
few. While defend
ers of

may be right to object to the totalizing tendencies these
distancing moves ha
ve often displayed, their value for all forms of thoughtful activity need not be

Indeed, their value becomes especially crucial for those who hold, with Paul
Ricoeur, that practical engagement already involves distancing as a dialectical mo

all acts of com
tion, however much it may conflict with other, more immediate and obvious aims. Many find
his argument unconvincing, however. Bernstein suggests that his point can be rescued if taken not as a strict
transcendental argument but as a "her
meneutical dialectics" supported by plausible interpretations of actually
existing communities. See Jürgen Habermas,
Legitimation Crisis
, trans. Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press,
1975), pp. 107
108; Bernstein,
pp. 195, 225

Cf. Aristotle, EN V.10, VI.11; Stephen E. Toulmin, "Equity and Principles,"
Osgoode Hall Law Journal


I am greatly indebted to the work of social theorist Anthony Giddens for this formulation of the "bounded kno
edgeability" of human agency. See Anthony Giddens,
The Constitu
tion of Society

(Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1984), p. 282. Recognizing the possibility of self
deception provides at least a momentary point of
departure for conversation b
etween Christian theologians and more secularly oriented critical theorists. Perhaps the
best known discussion of self
deception as a concomitant of inordinate self
love (i.e., sin) remains Reinhold
The Nature and Destiny of Man
, vol. 1 (New Yor
k: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1941), pp. 203

One of the most interesting and pertinent recent accounts of modernity's distancing moves is to be found in
Stephen E. Toulmin's
The Return to Cosmology

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983),
especially pp.

Georg Gadamer, one of the most important defenders of

in our time, has often been accused of
underplaying the value of distancing moves. This accusation may be pertinent as far as his earlier work is concerned,
Truth and Method
, trans. Garrett Barding and John Cumming (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company,
1975). Such an accusation would be more difficult to sustain in light of his later work, particularly
Reason in the
Age of Science
, trans. Frederick

G. Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981). His position now seems close
to Ricoeur's.




is practically engaged in all the ways dis
cussed so far not least because its
making is always provoked by relatively singular contexts.

These are contexts whose
intelligibility depends on noting not only how they
are to be related to other contexts (how they
are to be treated as

singular), but also how they are to be distinguished from every
other context (how they are to be treated as rel
), and, finally, how these two
aspects are to be
interrelated. Often this interrelationship is spoken of in terms of universals and

where "what is universal and what is particular are codetermined."

This suggests

is not concerned with universals and particulars as they ar
e usually understood in
formal logic, where universals are completely invariant and particulars function only as instances
of universals. Instead, phronetic sense
making presup
poses that particulars in their full
particularity are capable of making sense

in a way that universals cannot fully anticipate and
which furthermore affects the way in which universals are to be actualized in that instance. And
here it is crucial to note that the way in which universals are actualized in a relatively singular
ext does not require the formulation of more comprehensive univer
sals. As Gadamer points
out, "for the application of rules there exists in turn no rule."

Aristotle at one point likens this
adaptation of the universal to a special type of ruler
one ma
de of lead
which could be bent to
take on the irregular shape of a certain kind of molding.

We are dealing, then, with

universals and

ulars which are capable of mutual influence. These are what
jointly comprise a context's
relative singularity, and their somewhat unpredictable inter
guarantees that phronetic sense
making will always prove a bit unset
tling, especially to those
who expect reasoning to fix everything in its proper place. And it will prove doubly unsett
ling to
the extent that relatively singular contexts are thereby often relatively
, requiring that
good sense be made of them before the opportu
nities to do so pass us by.

The final point I wish to make in this portrayal is that the ways in whic

sense are appropriate to its subject matter. Because of its practical engagement with relatively
singular contexts, phronetic sense
making has to be elastic, rather than rigidly fixed. At the
beginning of the
Nicomachean Ethics

e reminds us that one mark of a well
person is "to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject

And where sense
making is practically engaged he acknowledges that there simply is
too much "variety
and fluctua
tion" for it to be judged by the standards of precision used in, say, a
mathematical proof. Instead, we must be content in such matters "to indicate the truth roughly
and in outline."

By saying that phronetic sense
making is elastic, I am at
tempting to restate

Paul Ricoeur,
Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences

bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 243

By design I am using "context" so elastic
ally that practically anything we can think about at all can be considered
both as a context and as part of other contexts. A context is simply any things

Aristotle, EN VI.7: "Nor is practical wisdom con
cerned with universals only
it must also recognize the partic
ulars." Cf. also EN VI.8, 11. Aristotle appears unable to decide whether to assign recognition of particulars to
perception (
) or to intuitive reason (

Bernstein, p. 146.

Reason in the
Age of Science
, p. 49.

Aristotle, EN V.10. This passage is concerned with the relationship between equity and justice. But Aristotle
later makes it clear (EN VI.11) that discerning the equitable is convergent with phronetic sense

totle, EN I.3.



Aristotle's point in light of some recent discussions. In present terminol
ogy, at least as employed
by some thinkers, elastic sense
making could be called paradigmatic, narrative, analogical,
cal, dialectical, and in some ca
ses even paradoxical.

Any of these terms can used to
designate a tension between continuity and variation (or relatedness and singularity) that can
arise in our sense
making's use of examples, concepts, principles, language, and the like
tension which

less seems more capable of informing our activity than any attempts at
less tension
fraught substitutes. Undoubtedly there are differences in the degree or kind of
tension each of these terms calls most immedi
ately to mind, but there seems to b
e frequent
disagreement on precisely where one sort of tension ends and another begins. Perhaps this is
because any terms we use to talk about elastic sense
making will most likely wind up being used
somewhat elastically them
selves. In any case, I shall

try to avoid getting entangled in those
debates by using "elastic" (somewhat elastically) to refer to whatever it is that these more specific
terms seem to have (somewhat elastically) in common. At least in part, what they seem to have
in common is a sor
t of double resistance. Any sort of elastic sense
making resists attempts to
classify everything into one rigidly fixed, hierarchically ordered system. At the same time,
however, no matter how far its resulting variations may extend, it preserves some ma
nner of
continuity which resists split
ting them off into their own isolated realms of meaning.

I shall not attempt to defend the cognitive worth of elastic sense
making here but will
instead assume the overall credibility of defenses offered in the cur
rent literature on the subject.
Some of its defenders have furthermore acknowl
edged that in some way or other they were
talking about

But whether or not the connec
tion with

is recognized, I
think it safe to suggest that the statu
s of either is linked to that of the other: if elastic sense
making makes sense, so, most likely, does phronetic sense
making, and vice versa. Further
I suggest that elastic sense
making needs to be construed in phronetic terms, insofar as any sense

The following literature uses these terms in a way that converges with my understanding of elasticity. On
paradigms see: Thomas S. Kuhn,
The Struc
ture of Scientific Revolutions
, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago
, 1970); Stephen E. Toulmin,
Foresight and Under

(New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961); David
The Analogical Imagina
, (New York: Cross
road, 1981), pp. 99
154 (on "classics" as paradigmatic);
ity and Ambiguity
, especially pp
. 12
17. On narrative see: Stanley Hauerwas,
Truthfulness and Tragedy

(Notre Dame: Univer
sity of Notre Dame Press, 1977), especially pp. 15
39; Paul Ricoeur,
Time and Narra
, vol.
1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984)
especially pp. ix
idem, "The Text as Dynamic Iden
tity," in
Identity of the Text
, ed. Mario J. Valdés and Owen Miller (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), pp. 175
186. On analogy see: David Burrell,
Analogy and Philosophical Language

(New Haven: Yale Universit
y Press,
1973); Tracy,
The Analogical Imagina
, pp. 405
445; idem;
Plurality and Ambigu
, pp. 92
94. On metaphor
see: Frank Burch Brown,
tion: Poetic Metaphor and the Languages of Religious Belief

(Chapel Hill:
University of North Caro
lina Press, 1983)
cially pp. 44
47; George Lakoff and Mark Johnson,
phors We
Live By

go: Univer
sity of Chicago Press, 1980); Sallie McFague,
ical Theology

Fortress Press, 1982); Paul Ricoeur,
The Rule of Metaphor

(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977); Sheldon
Sacks, ed.,
On Metaphor

(Chicago: Univer
sity of Chicago Press, 1979); Janet Martin Soskice,
Metaphor and Relig
ious Language

(Oxford: Oxford Univer
sity Press, 1985). On dialectic see: Gadamer,
n in the Age of Science
pp. 45
50; Paul Ricoeur, "What is Dialecti
cal," in
Freedom and Moral
, ed. John Bricke (Lawrence: University of
Kansas, 1976), pp. 173
189. On paradox see: Paul Ricoeur, "Two Encoun
ters with Kierke
gaard," in
ruth: The Disclosure of the Self
, ed. Joseph H. Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), pp. 313
342; John
Paradox and Discovery

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965).

See, for example, Ricoeur, "The Text as Dynamic Identity
," pp. 177
178; Hauerwas,
Truthfulness and Tragedy
pp. 27


making involves "an interplay of meanings, norms and power."

That is, insofar as any sense
making is practically engaged (and thus histor
ically implicated), it loses some of its innocence
and must be open to the kind of communal accountability and the
sorts of distancing moves that I
have insisted are essential to phronetic sense
making. Elastic sense
making is no less essential to
the portrayal I have offered, but it still involves risks which need always to be kept in mind.

By now it should be fairl
y obvious that phronetic sense
making does not share the
either/or assumption lurking behind objectivism and tribalism. Its practical engagement with
relatively singular contexts precludes any pretense of following stan
dards which are (or would
even aim
to be) completely unaf
fected by our contingent standpoints. By the same token,
however, it does not rest content with standards which are completely subservient to our
contingent standpoints either. It presumes rather that the particularity of our conti
ngent stand
points can be more
particularly informative without denying their full particular
ity, and that
the standards appropriate to guide our discernment of informative particularity can aim for a
malleable universality which need not be seen as
any less universal for being malleable. Granted,
these correlative notions
informative particularity and malleable universality
display certain
tensions, and both objectivists and tribalists might legit
imately wonder whether they are finally
. An affirmative answer to their question would undoubtedly be inevitable if
allowances were not made for elastic sense
making. Once we do make such allowances,
however, we can no longer assume that the tensions these notions display are necessarily symp
tomatic of an underlying incoherence.

Radicalizing Phronesis

So far, in the preceding portrayal, I have presented

as one legitimate way of
making sense. My original claim goes further than this, however. Ultimately, I claimed,

forms of

thoughtful activity are best

. I am claiming, in other words, that

is not simply one legitimate way of making sense but that it is the most fundamen
and inclusive way, from which all other ways of making sense derive wh
atever merits they may
legitimately claim.

must therefore not only be recognized, but radicalized.

I find it necessary to radicalize

because it seems that accounts of reasoning
which would make

either subordinate to or com
pletely separate from some non
phronetic way of thinking tend to presuppose the either/or assumption behind objectivism and

This of course is where my understanding of

has to part company with

But the parting seems una
able, and not only for the reason just given. As
Stephen Toulmin points out, many of Aristotle's assumptions about reasoning were reinforced by
assumptions about the nature of things (e.g., the fixity of species and the unqualified
immutability of th
e gods) which no longer seem war

Other alternatives now seem more

Anthony Giddens,
New Rules of Sociological Method

(New York: Basic Books, 1976), p. 161. John B.
Thompson also discus
ses how easily elastic sense
making lends itself to ideological use
(i.e., "the mobilization of
meaning in order to sustain relations of domination") in
Studies in the Theory of Ideology

(Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1984), p. 200.

This is not to deny that tensions can ever lead to incoherence. They ofte
n do, even when coherence itself is con
strued elastically.

This is documented (at least as well as such a charge lends itself to documentation) in Toulmin,
, pp. 41
130, 478

Cf. Aristotle EN X.7
8, and Bernstein's comme
nts in Bernstein, p. 47.

Stephen E. Toulmin,
Human Understanding
, p. 356; Cf. Bernard Lonergan, "Aquinas Today: Tradition and


viable. "In intellectual history as in natural history, the old philoso
phical ideal of 'permanent
entities', which preserve an essential identity through a continu
ing sequence o
f 'accidental'
historical changes, can now be super
seded by a more life
like, and less mysterious notion: viz.,
that of 'historical entities' which, though possessing no absolutely unchanging characteris
preserve enough unity and continuity to remai
n distinct and recognizable from one epoch to

For Toulmin and others this shift in our understanding of the nature of things
requires us to speak even of theoretical know
ledge primarily in terms of a moral commitment to
certain ideals of huma
n flour

Thus appeals to theory become "one more element in

In the terms I have been using, it now seems that all forms of thought
ful activity are
precisely that
forms of thoughtful
. Ultimately, all reasoning ever
where is practically
engaged and thus com
munally nurtured, historically implicated, and provoked by the demands of
atively singular contexts. So if we are to retain any commitment to a more
than tribal rational
ity, it will ultimately have to be on

phronetic terms, or at least something very much like them.
This is not to rule out the relevance any number of distancing moves (as mentioned earlier), some
of which may claim to be more rigidly systematic, detached, or value
neutral than overtly
tic sense
making. But their guidance, however crucial, cannot displace

rightfully playing its more rad
ically influential role.

Resisting Objectivism and Tribalism:

(A Theological Ploy)

An interesting consequence of radicalizing

is that it can help us resist
objectivism and tribalism without wholly abandoning certain moves which have been taken to be
characteristic of one or the other tendency. The universalizing moves which objec
tivists hold
dear can be reinterpreted in terms

of a malleable universality, while tribalists' localizing moves
can be rein
terpreted in terms of an informative particularity. In carrying out these
reinterpretations we would, in effect, be replacing objectivism with what I shall call confessional
calism and tribalism into what I shall call radical confes
sionalism. These are tendencies
which would still pull our attention in different directions, but as the play on terminology
suggests, each is nevertheless linked rather closely (if somewhat diale
ctically) to the other.

Just how closely (and dialectically) these tendencies can be linked is well exemplified, I
believe, in many of the claims I have made so far about
, especially the claim that

can and must be radicalized. For I un
derstand this claim, and others related to it, to be
at once radically confes
sional and confessionally radical.

According to H. Richard Niebuhr, we proceed confes
sionally when we cannot avoid
stating "what has happened to us in our community, how we cam
e to believe, how we reason
about things and what we see from our point of view."

If, as I have argued, all reasoning is

Journal of Religion

(Supplement) 58 (1978):S1
S17; Langdon Gilkey, "Response to Lonergan," ibid.,

Human Understanding
, p. 141.

For the phrase "human flourishing," see Hilary Putnam,
Reason, Truth and History

bridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1981).

Stephen E. Toulmin, "Explanation and Interpretation," course lecture, Th
e University of Chicago, Chicago, Ill.,
January 24, 1984.

H. Richard Niebuhr,
The Meaning of Revelation

(New York: Macmil
lan Publishing Co., 1941), p. 29. I find this


tically engaged, thereby requiring that

be radicalized, then I can hardly deny that
the claims involved in this argume
nt are themselves practically engaged. Indeed, I find it
necessary to acknowledge not only that these claims are influenced by my contingent standpoint
but that they are rad
ically influenced by it
influenced all the way down
to the point that certain
trands from the variety of traditions which partly comprise that standpoint already elicit from me
a degree of trust and loyalty more basic than any of my attempts to justify the claims they make
on me.

This is a familiar admission to make about overtly
religious commitments, but I believe
it applies as well to commitments which are not overtly relig
ious. Thus, I am also committed to
critically examining even my most radical convictions largely because I find the efforts of Soc
rates and his heirs more
admirable than those of Protagoras and his,

and while it is hardly
negligible that the former group offered arguments on behalf of their efforts
sometimes very
forceful and elegant arguments
I remain more convinced of their efforts' admirability than of

soundness of any one of their arguments.

My claim that all forms of thoughtful activity ought
to be governed by

and my proposal for how

should be under
stood are on no
firmer footing than this. They are rad
ically confessional c

Without ceasing to be radically confessional, however, my claims can also be regarded as
ally radical. For an important reason for claiming that all reasoning everywhere will,
at its best, be phronetically governed is that I presently c
annot conceive of any other alternative
which appears as substantively coherent as this one.

Thus, while not pretend
ing to have
suddenly jumped beyond my contingent stand
point, I am making what sounds suspi
ciously like a
dental move. It soun
ds like that because, at least in a way, that is what it is, though it can
also be regarded as a rhetor
ical move.

I do not want to quibble over what to call it, but in the

ization helpful as far as it goes, but do not always draw the same impli
cations for universalizing moves that
Niebuhr seems to draw.

This is not to say, with the tribalist, that my attempts to reason critically are therefore wholly subservient to my
gent standpoint, for though I can hardly regard my trust as comple
tely unaffected by such a standpoint, I could
hardly take it seriously if I thought my trust wholly subservient either. My line of thinking here is indebted to Paul
Ricoeur's reflections on "the antinomy of human value." "If values are not our work but p
recede us," Ricoeur asks,
"why do they not suppress our freedom? And if they are our work why are they not arbitrary choices?" [Paul
Political and Social Essays

(Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1974), p. 250.] He concludes that we
can make

sense of this only by setting up a circular, practi
cal, and concrete tension "between the sort of participation
which is the soul of historical consciousness and the sort of distanciation which is the soul of critical philosophy" (p.
249). I agree.

By choosing Socrates over Protagoras, I do not mean to disparage all forms of rhetoric, but only its more
opportunistic forms. And I am not trying to shut rhetoric out of philosophy or critical inquiry, for I believe that
critical inquiry at its best is

My reflections here also parallel David Tracy's claim that conversation with classics cannot be replaced by
arguments about them. See
Plurality and Ambiguity
, pp. 19

By "substantive coherence" I mean something much more elastic
than formal consistency. Indeed I find
substantive coherence more substantively coherent than a strict interpreta
tion of the latter.

According to Stephen Körner, arguing "from so far incon
ceivable alternatives" can be regarded as "a much
but plausible, version of Kant's transcendental deduction." But he also considers such a move to be a type

of "nonsophistic rhet
oric." See Stephen Körner,
Metaphysics: Its Structure and Function

(Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1984), p. 192. I
have elsewhere offered a defense of transcendental moves along similar, rhetorical
lines, defining it as "an historically implicated comparison of claims expli
citly made (includ
ing its own prior claims)
with whatever more or less contestable sense can be

assigned to the performa
tive situation accompanying those
claims, attempting to deter
mine whether
and in what way

they can be understood to be anywhere from per
tively self
warranting to performa
tively self
refuting." (Charles W. Allen, "The Rec
overy of
: Its


perhaps naively optimis
tic hope of avoiding trivial con
troversies I am suggesti
ng that we call this
type of move confessionally radical. It is confes
sional because it is always mindful of the radical
ence of contingent standpoints on its own efforts. But it is neverthe
less radical in the sense
of seeking to get at the very
roots of everything we say and do as radical confessionalists.

It is
also radical in the sense of recognizing that we cannot get at those roots as long as we pretend to
be detached spectators, instead of thought
ful activ
which in turn means that w
e cannot get at
them without affecting them (and thus affecting ourselves) in ways we cannot foresee before the
attempt is made. While recognizing the risks inherent in making any universal claims about
human life in the world, confessional radicalism nev
less does make such claims in hopes of
provoking respect
ful and suspicious conversa
tion with those who may wish to differ.

instead of seeking to place radical confessional
ism on a firmer footing than it already has, confes
sional radicalism i
s far more interested in remind
ing us all of how volatile our standpoints
inevitably are.

Perhaps characterizing phronetic alternatives to objec
tivism and tribalism in this way will
sound too theological to some potential conversation partners. But w
hat else should they expect
from someone whose primary interests are in fact theolog
ical? In any case, nothing I have said
would prevent others from developing and defending similar, less theological
alternatives. While we would doubtless find
ourselves obliged to converse and argue about the
relative adequacy of their formula
tions as compared with mine, the probability that our disagree
ments would continue indefinitely would not prevent either of us from freely borrowing and
adapting one anot
her's strategies in order to resist temptations toward objectivism and tribalism.
Phronetic sense
making's elasticity leaves room for that much latitude.

My principal concerns, nevertheless, do remain theologi
cal, and one of my fondest hopes
is that th
e theological com
munity would increasingly turn to strategies such as these for resisting
objectivism and tribalism in their own ranks. In fact, some of them already have turned to such
strategies, though they do not always recognize one another. Many w
ho style themselves as
postliberal (in George Lindbeck's sense of the term) are, I believe, better described not as
sectarians but as radical confessional

They may seem at points to eschew univer

Implications for the Role of Practical Reason in Theology," Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Chicago, Chicago,
Illinois, 1987, p. 52.)

Objectivists prefer the metaphor of foundations to that of roots. I doubt that one's c
hoice of metaphor matters as
much as what projects we try to use the metaphor to underwrite.

Both Toulmin and Ricoeur have occasionally recommended transcendental moves in this confessionally radical
sense (and with similar reservations about how the

term might be misunder
stood). [See Paul Ricoeur,
Freud and

(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970); Stephen E. Toulmin,
Knowing and Acting

(New York:
Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1976).] For Ricoeur there can still be a kind of "transcen
dental logic . . . not
exhausted in the Kantian a priori," (p. 52) but this move turns out to be thoroughly hermeneutical. For Toulmin a
transcendental move is the most inclusive way to respond to the question "What then are we to make of ourselves?"
296) attempting to "yield a broader and more consistent picture of human life in the world" (p. 242). Both
Toulmin and Ricoeur view such a move as prac
tically engaged and therefore poten
tially self
transformative, and both
intend such a move to aim more

at provoking conver
sation than at bringing conversation to a halt.

I agree with Richard Rorty that, insofar as transcendental moves try to get behind our confessional standpoints to
something firmer, they are bound to fail. But I do not share his
further conclusion that such moves are therefore
pointless. See Richard Rorty,
Consequences of Pragmatism

(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982),
pp. 173

See George Lindbeck,
The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postlib
eral Age

Westminster Press, 1984). Other examples of postliberal theology include Hauerwas; Ronald F. Thiemann,


moves altogether, but eventu
ally they gran
t them some legitimacy, albeit grudgingly.

On the
other hand, many who are more sympa
thetic with a revised correlational approach to theology (in
David Tracy's sense of the term) are better de
scribed not as foundationalists but as confessional

They may at times seem too optimistic about the ability of universalizing moves to
settle conflicting claims, but a closer reading usually reveals a more theologically apt sense of
hope, not optimism.

(Nor are these moves intended to assume priori

over the particularity of
one's subject matter.
) To the extent that these two descriptions are accurate, I am surely
warranted in hoping that members of these two circles will eventually find ways to work more
closely together than they presently seem r
eady to do. This is not a hope that their mutual
suspicions would then be laid aside, but that their mutual respect would become just as evident.
For confessional radicals and radical confes
sionalists are both phronetic sense
makers, and while
it would
be naive to pretend that their concerted efforts would ever totally banish tempta
toward objec
tivism and tribalism, their mutually respectful and suspicious alliance would seem
to offer one of the best hopes imaginable for resist
ing those temptatio

Revelation and Theology

(Notre Dame: Univer
sity of Notre Dame Press, 1985). One might also include Francis
sler Fiorenza
Foundational Theology

(New York: Crossroad, 1985) and Sharon D. Welch,
Communities of
Resistance and Solidar

(Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1985) as examples of postliberal theology with a more overtly
political aim.

Cf. Lindbeck, pp. 129
135; Thieman
n, p. 83; Welch, pp. 81

Tracy makes no secret of his confessional standpoint. Cf.
Plurality and Ambiguity
, pp. 110, 113. Other
examples of revised correlational approaches include Langdon Gilkey,
Society and the Sacred

(New York:
Crossroad, 1981
); Schubert M. Ogden,
On Theology

(New York: Harper and Row, 1986).

Cf. Tracy
Plurality and Ambiguity
, pp. 27, 134, n. 40; Gilkey, pp. 26
41; Ogden, pp. 107

"As always, a general method can only heuristically guide the inquiry; the subject
matter alone
and that in all its
must rule." David Tracy, "Practical Theology in the Situation of Global Pluralism," in
Formation and
, ed. Lewis S. Mudge and James N. Poling (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), p. 140.